Writing to Learn: Critical Thinking Activities for any Classroom

What is Writing to Learn?

We all can think of times when we were stuck while we were writing a major project. A perspective we hadn't considered occurred to us, or an idea that we thought was clear cut didn't quite sound as convincing when we tried to put it into words. If we stuck with it, we often found that we could write our way out of the problem, and our thinking became clearer. Sometimes, even, our struggles with writing ended up radically changing the way we think. The challenge our writing posed helped us clarify difficult concepts, to see apparently stale ideas in new ways. This kind of writing is powerful, if sometimes a bit messy as we work to shape our thinking.

"Writing to Learn" is what Writing Across the Curriculum folks call writing's capacity to not just communicate thoughts and ideas, but to actually help structure our thinking. By giving students opportunities to work out their thinking in writing, they have a chance to struggle through difficult ideas and practice crucial habits of thought. Often, writing to learn activities are short, low stakes assignments or activities in class. The most basic activity might be asking your students to write for five minutes on a discussion question that you'll be starting class with. These kinds of activities can be a boon to those of us who have been frustrated by awkward silences when we ask a discussion question and when struggle to get a conversation going. If we ask students to write first, we know they have something to say; they've had a chance to develop their ideas without speaking off the cuff. Furthermore, we don't have to spend the time grading their responses, since their writing immediately applies to the work you are doing in class.

Since their writing is tied to the central topical and methodological issues you want your students to learn, time spent writing is not wasted. It's not something "extra" that you have to struggle to shoehorn into an already busy schedule.

Writing to Learn Activities: Effective and Efficient

Writing to learn activities can be used in three ways:

  • As a way of helping students practice crucial habits of thought you'd like them to master. Think about the particular kinds of critical thinking you want your students to perform. Design a low stakes activity in class that allows them to work through that way of thinking. Group work can be particularly effective here. For example, a psychology instructor who wanted her students to understand the role that scholarly literature played in research. She had students write three summaries of psychological literature on a topic they were exploring in groups. Two summaries were on articles on the topic that were in conversation with each other in some way (one cited the other), and the third was on how the two articles together contributed to knowledge about their topic. On top of this, each group member had to pick two different articles, so the group together developed a certain amount of expertise on the topic.
  • As a way of "scaffolding" larger assignments. If you divide up major projects into smaller, more manageable parts, you'll allow students the opportunity to approach the process of research and writing more effectively. You'll be able to guide students through their work, giving them resources and advise along the way. Students will be able to pace themselves, rather than procrastinating to the last minute. And, by highlighting crucial stages in the project, you'll be able to emphasize what components are most valuable to you in their work, so that students will know your expectations more clearly.
  • As a way of bringing students into dialogue. More informal interchange between students helps them to build on each other’s’ ideas, to collectively organize group projects, or to learn how to provide constructive feedback as they grapple with new genres.

  • As a way of assessing student learning. Writing to learn activities can give you a chance to get immediate and rich feedback on what your students are learning. You might ask them to write down the point they thought was most interesting in class that day, or what concepts they are most struggling with. You don't have to wait until you grade their major assignments to find out what they are learning and how well they are learning it. In addition, asking students to reflect on their learning helps students to make more comprehensive connections between different course units or concepts that might have seemed as distinct and unrelated otherwise.

Writing to Learn Booklet

Several years ago, WAC consultants put together a collection of writing to learn activities that we use in workshops and share with colleagues. The activities included in the booklet can be adapted to any number of different purposes and contexts.

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Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: JosseyBass Publishers, 2001.

Emig, Janet. "Writing as a Mode of Learning." Landmark Essays on Writing Across the Curriculum. Eds. Charles Bazerman and David Russell. Anaheim: Hermagoras Press, 1994.

Flash, Pamela. "Teaching with Writing." University of Minnesota Writing Center. <http:// writing.umn.edu/tww/assignments/inclass.htm>.

Murray, Donald. Write to Learn. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1984.

The WAC Clearinghouse. <http://wac.colostate.edu/>.

Young, Art. Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum. 3rd Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies: http://wac.colostate.edu/books/young_teaching/&nbsp;